Culture and history in vibrant Mantua
Surveying the Mantua skyline from the tower rooftop at Palazzo Castiglioni, I thought of the stories of power, wealth, love, and war that unfolded here from the city’s Etruscan origins and Roman occupation, through the Renaissance. I imagined being here in the days of the House of Gonzaga and especially Isabella d’Este, the “First Lady of the Renaissance” who ruled Mantua when her husband was off fighting wars and after his death. She influenced culture, fashion, the arts, and even funded a school for girls in Mantua.
The historic city center of Mantua along with nearby town of Sabbioneta was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2008. Mantua also has the distinction of being designated as the “2016 Italian Capital of Culture”, the first city in Italy to be awarded this honor. And no wonder — music, history, art, and regional food and wine specialties were all part of our stay. Plus there were beautiful walks in and around the city and other outdoor activities.
Mantua is a vibrant city with a rich history, but it is the period of rule by the powerful Gonzaga family (1328-1707) that is the most fascinating to me. The Gonzaga’s wealth and influence have left their indelible marks on this Renaissance city of culture and art.
Our stay at Palazzo Castiglioni in Mantua
What could be a better place to stay in Mantua than in an intriguing palace of great historic significance in the very historic center of the old city? We loved our three-night stay at Palazzo Castiglioni.
The 12th-century palace is the largest in Mantua and was home to the ruling Bonacolsi family during their reign from 1200 AD to 1312 AD. During the 18th century, it was purchased by the noble Castiglioni family, descendants of Baldesar Castiglioni, an eminent Renaissance scholar, diplomat, courtier, ambassador to the pope, and writer of an iconic book of the times, Il Cortegiano (The Courtier). His friend, the great artist, Raphael, painted his portrait which is on exhibit at the Louvre. The family still resides in the palace and owns a fascinating archive of documents and letters from the period.
Part of the palace has been renovated with designs of Italian architect and designer Filippo Feroldi, creating five spacious luxury suites, each with unique decor that provides modern convenience while preserving the grandeur of the palace. Rooms in the family’s apartments are available for weddings, anniversaries, and special events. Palazzo Castiglioni has been pleased to have many notable guests, including world-renowned musicians and literary figures who come for the city’s annual festivals.
If staying in the palace wasn’t enough, we had the pleasure of staying in the spacious Tower Suite, a magnificent suite on the entire top floor of the palace’s tower and a spectacular rooftop garden. This is a true destination accommodation, where people come to Mantua just to stay in tower, including art and history experts and enthusiasts. The medieval suite architecture was highlighted by an amazing 8-meter high fresco on the tower walls representing the “tree of life”. The 13th-century fresco is one of the oldest non-religious frescoes in Europe. And there it was, right in our room!
It was thrilling to climb the suite’s narrow spiral staircase to get the full view of our elegant accommodations with antique furnishings, canopied bed, and the beautiful fresco. A door at the top of the staircase opens to a rooftop garden with panoramic views of Mantua, its landmarks and its lakes, and miles beyond into the countryside all seen over the city’s red-tiled rooftops. Below is a sunrise picture from the rooftop featuring one of the prominent statues on the Church of St. Andrew on Piazza Sordello.
It felt like we had stepped back in time but for the availability of modern conveniences. Palazzo Castiglioni is filled with the ambiance of Renaissance style and is located only steps away from many main attractions and piazzas of Mantua.
Highlights of Mantua
We had a wonderful and busy itinerary with our hosts and guides during our three days that included some free time to wander the streets and piazzas of Mantua on our own. Our impressions of Mantua were that it’s a very livable city, one where residents can be part of very many cultural activities in the midst of rich historical significance.
In separate future posts about some of the places mentioned here, we’ll have more pictures and details to share, but in this post we hope to give you an idea of our visit and highlights of things to do in and around Mantua.
Across Piazza Sordello from Palazzo Castiglioni is Palazzo Ducale. With 500 rooms and several courtyards, the palace was home to the Gonzaga family during their reign (1328 to 1707). We were able to take a quick self-directed tour of portions of the large complex during our time in Mantua. Particularly fascinating are the mesmerizing paintings of Andrea Mantegna, one of the greatest artists of the time.
When touring Palazzo Ducale, your attention will be turned often to the ceilings with the gorgeous frescoes. Of special importance are those in the Camera Picta or Camera degli Sposi, the bridal chamber with the amazing work of Andrea Mantegna. Below are photos of the ceiling and one of the wall panels which depict a court scene with the Gonazaga family.
It’s all about love at Palazzo Te, the palace Federico II Gonzaga had built to have a place for spending time with his mistress. Room after room designed by artist Giulio Romano presents a variety of beautiful, playful, and daring paintings.
One stunning example is the ceiling in the Chamber of the Giants with a scene from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses” where Jupiter punishes the giants who planned to overthrow the gods. This is just a brief introduction to this great attraction. In a separate future post we’ll provide more pictures and detail about Palazzo Te.
A gorgeous theater with fantastic acoustics, Teatro Bibiena, built in 1769, is home to the Mantova Chamber Orchestra and a main venue of the Mantova Chamber Music Festival. Read more in our article, The Musical Essence of Mantua.
The piazzas of Mantua are great places to feel part of the city. On market days, the squares are crowded with vendors and shoppers. We arrived in Mantua while the weekend flea market was in full swing on Piazza Sordello.
A short walk from Palazzo Castiglioni is Piazza delle Erbe, a beautiful square surrounded by shops and restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating in view of its imposing 15th-century clock tower. The Basilica of Sant’Andrea is also on Piazza delle Erbe and worth a visit for it’s ornate interior decor and art. It is said that beneath the marble in front of the altar is a container holding earth that had been soaked with the blood of Christ.
Visitors and locals can also retreat to the nearby pathways and parks along the shores of the three lakes, created in the 12th century for defense purposes, that virtually surround the city — Lago Superiore, Lago di Mezzo, and Lago Inferiore.
On the Sunday we arrived, we took a walk along the lakeshore and took notice of the many couples and families who were enjoying leisurely time with each other.
Mantua restaurant tip: In easy walking distance from Palazzo Castiglioni up a quiet side street is Tiratappi di Scicolon on Piazza Leon Battista Alberti where Mr. TWS and I had a lovely dinner outside on a mild evening. We liked the food, service and romantic ambiance. I had the Risotto alla Pilota — a Mantuan specialty of local sausage sauteed in butter with garlic and pepper. Delicious!
Grazie di Curtatone
Grazie is a small section of the town of Curtatone about five miles from Mantua on the Mincio River. The main attraction there is the Sanctuary of the Blessed Virgin Mary which was built in the early 15th century by Francesco Gonzaga in gratitude to the Virgin Mary at the end of the Plague.
The reason the photo above has a long view toward the church is to show the area where each year artists from around the world take their chalk to the pavement and create their religious representations in honor of the Virgin Mary on the feast of the Assumption, August 15th. There was still some residue of the colorful drawings faintly visible on the pavement when we visited in April.
The interior of the church is different from any church I’ve seen before. Upon entering, one’s attention is immediately drawn to the stuffed crocodile hanging from the ceiling. One theory about this unusual church decoration is that it symbolizes holding back the forces of evil.
As you explore further, you next see what appear to be typical religious statues on both sides of the church. But a closer look reveals something else; many of the statues depict gruesome scenes, including torture, a hanging, and a beheading (as shown in the photos above). They are actually votive mannequins given in thanks for the mercies shown by the Blessed Virgin Mary saving these people in their hours of dire need. In addition to the votive mannequins, there are also statues of many dignitaries from Italian and church history. The sanctuary is also home to the remains of Baldesar Castiglioni in a tomb designed by Giulio Romano.
Grazie di Curtatone restaurant tip: One of our favorite dining experiences in Mantua was an al fresco lunch of Mantuan specialties at Locanda delle Grazie which is close to the sanctuary. It is another great reason to visit Grazie to Curtatone. You can read more about it soon in an upcoming post.
Parco Giardino Sigurtà (Sigurta Garden Park)
Open from March 6 to November 6 (2016)
We were able to combine our love of bike-riding and enjoyment of the beauty of nature with an excursion to Parco Giardino Sigurtà, prize-winning gardens about 18 miles north of Mantua in Valeggio sul Mincio. We took a fun bike tour through the park with Mantovabikexperience with our guide Stefano Cabrini. You can read more about it in our article Biking in the Park: Parco Giardino Sigurta
Valeggio Sul Mincio pasta tip: We enjoyed a delicious lunch of assorted fresh pastas, including various tortellini (the specialty of pasta-makers in the town of Valeggio Sul Mincio) at Tortellini Remelli at Via A. Sala 24 in the village. They sell their fresh pasta in their shop, but also prepare and serve it in their restaurant. Mr. TWS had such a look of pure joy as he devoured every bite on his plate. (Sorry, no photo.)
More we’d like to do during a stay in Mantua
- If you visit in September, you’ll catch Festivaletterature. This is a very prestigious annual literary festival bringing world-renowned literati to lead, participate, and enjoy workshops, concerts, and a myriad of cultural events. In 2016 the festival will take place from September 7th to September 11th.
- In addition to bike paths and tours within the city of Mantua, there are extensive bike routes for all levels of cyclists in countryside, parks, and along the rivers. Other activities include walks, horse riding, and boat trips.
- Sabbioneta, Mantua’s UNESCO sister city, is only 30 km away. Built between 1556 and 1591, it is considered to be a perfect example of an ideal city of the modern Renaissance.
I think that Isabella d’Este would like the Mantua of today. Don’t you?
How to get to Mantua
We arrived in Mantua by car from Milan (185 km) on the A4 (toward Venice) and A22 motorways (toll roads). There is also Trenitalia railway service from cities including Milan, Ferrara, Padova, Parma, and Verona. The nearest airport is Verona Villafranca “Catullo” Airport (20 km).
Thanks to Palazzo Castiglioni Mantova for hosting our Mantua cultural experience.